by Marijke Hoek
We call on each other, when speaking or writing of those issues of faith or practice that divide us, to acknowledge our own failings and the possibility that we ourselves may be mistaken, avoiding personal hostility and abuse, and speaking the truth in love and gentleness.
One of my favorite books is The Moral Vision of the New Testament by Richard Hays. His reflections on a Christian ethic and understanding of true humanness are brilliant. His framework is clear and his agenda is bold. But what equally attracts me is the humility with which it is offered and the invitation to an ongoing and deeply reflective conversation.
The book is full of such words as “propose”, “offer”, “seek”, “suggest”, and “discuss.” His study acknowledges the tension of trying to reconcile the apparent contradictions among the various New Testament writers as well as the role of the “dissonants.” This is not an academic exercise for the few, but rather this concerns us all since it is quite an art to handle the word of truth correctly and adopt a practice of ongoing learning and dialogue.
It is also quite an art to handle different points of view in the Christian community. While one day we will know fully, at present we know in part and we see only a poor reflection (1 Corinthians 13:12). No wonder we differ at times in understanding the Word or in applying what we understand.
Also, as the New Testament writers did not write in a vacuum, our reading of the Word is influenced by our different cultures, traditions, and generations. It is exactly in this myriad of differences that we can offer a Christian witness through how we disagree with one another. For the Lordship of Christ in our lives determines not only the reasoning behind our hope but also the gentleness and respect with which this is offered (1 Peter 3:15).
Our commitment to Christ should influence how we handle differences. Observing some disagreements in the evangelical community, “gentleness” and “respect” are concepts that hardly come to mind.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses factions within the Christian community with different religious conceptions. His main concern is to give both groups a better understanding of how the principles of the cross need to be applied in order for Christian truth and love to be expressed. His call to acceptance within the community is directly linked to our imitation of Christ and is crucial in the formation of unity in the Church (Romans 15:5–7).
Similarly, in his letter to the Philippians, Paul appeals to the sacrifice and humility expressed on the cross (Philippians 2:1ff). This appeal to our identity is also found in his letter to the Corinthians: not only are we reconciled through Christ but, as His ambassadors, God is making His appeal through us (2 Corinthians 5). So how we handle our differences is a kingdom matter.
Paul appeals to the Church to make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Romans 14:19). It is vital that we create space where we can ask new questions, come to new conclusions and understand afresh the application of the Word—a space where different practices emerge, curious people can ponder and our faith is sharpened. Here, opinions are discussed with humility and we will consider questions necessary to advance the status quo rather than as a threat to it.
The Church ought to be a community of learners where we can state our case, review it, and learn to disagree with one another without losing the relationship. It is a communal life where “sorry” isn’t the hardest word.
Space for Reflection
While it is vital that we create space for ongoing biblical reflection, more thought needs to be given to the process, because real dialogue involves content as well as methodology. How we start a discussion determines to a great deal the climate in which that conversation takes place. Do we set the scene for conflict or do we prepare the ground for mutual learning and edification? Wisdom from heaven is peace-loving and considerate (James 3.17). Such wisdom marks Christian maturity, values good relationships and is mindful of the process.
When we were children, we not only reasoned like children but also quarreled like children. While some Christian disagreements hardly seem to supersede the quarrel in the sandpit, others are more serious. When differences run deep and it becomes hard for parties to listen to one another and communicate effectively, we need to call in those who are gifted to mediate. The timely and skillful intervention of mediators would undoubtedly have prevented some of the evangelical disagreements from becoming so public, personal, and disrespectful.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God (Matthew 5:9). Establishing shalom is one of the ways the sons of God are recognized. It is primarily not about being right or wrong; it is about the kind of community we are becoming. Or as Richard Hays writes, “the value of our exegesis and hermeneutics will be tested by our capacity to produce persons and communities whose character reflects Jesus Christ and who are pleasing to God.” Without the embodiment of the Word in our lives, none of our deliberations matter. We will, after all, be known by our fruit (Matthew 7:18–20).
Marijke Hoek is the Forum for Change co-ordinator of the Evangelical Alliance.